When the Chess Game Is Over, the King and the Pawn Go Back in the Same Box

Italian Proverb? John Boys? Thomas Adams? John Spencer? Thomas-Simon Gueullette? Omar Khayyam? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some people live lives of opulence and celebrity while others remain mired in poverty and anonymity. On a chessboard there is a king and a queen, but there are also eight lowly pawns. A metaphorical adage highlights the uniform fate of all chess pieces and humans:

At the end of the game the king and the pawn go into the same box.

Chess pieces undergo a form of reincarnation when a new match begins. Humans may experience reincarnation, oblivion, judgment day, hades, paradise or some other continuation. Would you please help me to find a citation for the adage above?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published match located by QI occurred in a 1629 collection of writings by John Boys who was the Dean of Canterbury in England. The non-standard spelling in the following passage is from the original text. Boldface added to excepts by QI: 1

As in Chesse-play, so long as the game is in playing, all the men stand in their order, and are respected according to their place; first, the King; then, the Queene; then, the Bishops; after them, the Knights; and last of all, the common Souldier: but when once the game is ended, and the table taken away, then all are confusedly tumbled into a bag, and happily the King is lowest, and the pawne vpmost. Euen so is it with vs in this life; the world is a huge theater or stage, wherein some play the parts of Kings; other, of Bishops; some, Lords; many, Knights; other, Yeomen: but when our Lord shall come with his Angels to iudge the world; all are alike.

Further below an interesting precursor verse from Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is presented. The translation into English appeared in the 19th century, but the source material may have been circulating in the 11th century. The complete provenance of the verse is uncertain.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading When the Chess Game Is Over, the King and the Pawn Go Back in the Same Box


  1. 1629, Title: The Workes of Iohn Boys: Doctor in Diuinitie and Deane of Canterburie, Author: John Boys (1571-1625), Section: The first Sunday after the Epiphanie, Quote Page 129, Imprinted for W. Ashley, London (HathiTrust Full View) link